The Millennial Pilgrim: Sometimes healing happens away from home and family

Toxicity in a family system is a result of unacknowledged damage members have caused each other. It's okay if you want to distance yourself from that space for a while. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise

Somi DasUpdated: Saturday, February 05, 2022, 03:07 PM IST
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A still from the movie Dear Zindagi |

There is a viral video of spiritual speaker Gaur Gopal Das where he implores his followers to spend more time with their parents as their time on this planet is limited. This is not an uncommon piece of advice from motivational speakers — people who are out there to morally guide us and tell us what's right and what's wrong, what should be our priority in life and what we should value. As if they are reading out of a book on how life should be lived, irrespective of our subjective experience and how that experience might have shaped our personality and worldview.

Add to this spiritual and moral bullying, popular culture's inclination to stereotype family as the ultimate refuge, as a happy place we want to return to, and the only entity with which our loyalties should lie. Such biased portrayal and spiritual gaslighting propel a culture in which uncomfortable conversations around abuse and neglect of myriads types by members of the family is pushed under the carpet. This also leaves people whose experience within the family has been different from the majority with a sense of alienation and guilt.

Often people are more sympathetic towards us if we have a story in which we come across as a victim of physical or mental abuse. But many times we do not want to identify as a victim. Maybe our situation doesn't warrant that label. Being a victim or looking at oneself as one isn't necessary to seek refuge outside the family. It could come from a deep sense of entrapment in the family drama and a pressing urge to free oneself of the circumstances that might be impeding one's growth as an individual. 

When I first decided to move out of my parents' place despite living in the same city, many of my friends and colleagues judged me. They were ready with similar advice as Gaur Gopal without any consideration about what could have triggered my decision. Renting out a space of your own, away from parents and siblings doesn't necessarily mean that you are abdicating your responsibilities, cutting ties, or abandoning them. It only means that you wish to have more control over your environment and finally a chance to undo the years of conditioning if you are willing to do the inner work. Such a life-changing decision needs less of looking down upon and more encouragement and normalisation. 

It is a scary decision for most adults because it's easier to choose familiar dysfunction over uncertainty. The dysfunction within a family is so deeply ingrained that it becomes our familiar space. The pattern of outbursts and fights, the silent treatment, the comparisons, snide remarks and the blame game is so predictable, that each member knows how to trigger the other, leaving your nervous system endlessly in the fight or flight mode. You are trapped in a repetitive loop of trigger and reaction, with no space for objective assessment of the situation.

Some family environments where the members are prone to drama and a term relationship therapist Esther Perel uses “kitchen sinking” can be highly toxic, and wreak havoc on your nervous system. Kitchen sinking is a pathological practice where those involved in a conflict (usually in intimate relationships) start with problem A, an immediate trigger and use previous instances of betrayal — keeping a scorecard of all biographical follies simply to score a few brownie points over each other.

What also needs to be normalised is family therapy but not in the way it is done today. In the therapy setting, often the family enters with a black sheep. As per the family system theory, families identify the problem person so that other more serious underlying issues concerning them can be ignored.

For example, a couple could enter the therapy setting with a “problem child”. The parents might have simply decided to focus on the child to dither from their interpersonal issues. That's how family plays games, making scapegoats out of their dear ones. No wonder then in adult life, many of us feel cheated and betrayed. This is not to blame one's parents. But the damage needs acknowledgement and healing.

If our family decides to heal along with us, nothing like that. But in the absence of willingness to together deal with the dysfunction that might have crept into the family dynamics due to long-standing issues, it is our responsibility to protect our energy, create a safe space for ourselves. In due time, this might even result in a better relationship with our estranged family.

We don't forgive our parents and siblings for breaking our hearts or betraying us because a motivational speaker lectured us about the fact that life is transient. Love can never come from a place of guilt.

If at all we want to overcome the dysfunctionality in our family, we have to train ourselves to look at them as products of their history and circumstances; not merely as people we are related to and whom we have certain expectations from. Perhaps, then we will have a more empathetic and balanced overview of who they are. At the same time, empathy can be practised with boundaries. Even if we understand why they did what they did, we can always choose to give them limited access to our life, so that they are unable to control us or manipulate us in ways that draw us back into the centre of the high-intensity drama we wanted to escape in the first place.

(The writer is a mental health and behavioural sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults. She can be found as @the_millennial_pilgrim on Instagram and Twitter.)

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